The El Paso band’s third album and sole Grand Royal classic ushered in a new era of aggression for the 21st Century
Juarez, Mexico, is, by all accounts, not a very nice place to live, or even visit.
The vast, sprawling city is home to a number of American-owned factories, cluttered and unsafe chasms of hell where the local workforce (mostly women) are duly exploited and degraded, offered criminally low Third World wages for Third World levels of exhausting overwork. The goods (both legal and not so much) ship north, and capitalism continues apace. Often traveling by foot in darkness from shanty neighborhood to assembly line, many such vulnerable women fell prey to a notorious surge of serial murder levied against their gender in Juarez. Beginning in 1993 and lasting well into the 2000s, hundreds of women young and old were butchered and left in open desert, junkyards and vacant lots. The corrupt city police remained entirely uninterested in charging anyone for any of these murders, outside of occasionally pinning a crime or two on an obvious patsy for the optics. And that’s to say nothing of the cartel-fueled drug violence that daily haunts the city, litters it with even more discarded corpses.
Just a couple of minutes north, across a usually-congested border station, is El Paso, Texas. Until recently, El Paso was widely seen as one of the safest large cities in the US; only the recent mass shooting of Latinx shoppers at a local Wal-Mart has cast any trace of Juarez’s shadowy danger over the city. Within sight of grim shacks of scavenged materials dotting the hillsides of the impoverished Mexican city, new stucco developments and gated communities ringed with pools and chemically-treated lawns skate right up to the border at El Paso’s southern edge, mute witnesses to depravity at safe remove. The figurative distance dwarfs the literal one. It’s only an invisible line, but it might as well be an ocean or a tundra. Does El Paso dream of Juarez, and does Juarez dream of El Paso?
It was on the northern side that a band named At The Drive-In formed in 1994, very quickly fine-tuning and calibrating their frenetic, melodic take on 90s post-hardcore. After two classic indie albums in Acrobatic Tenement and In.Casino.Out, ATDI offered up Relationship Of Command, in the fall of 2000. At turns cruel and life-affirming, frightening and beguiling, the album was widely acclaimed, and for awhile it seemed as if the band was poised to break into the mainstream. Instead, amidst personal acrimony and substance addiction issues, they called it quits soon after, essentially splitting into two factions: the fairly meat-and-potatoes post-hardcore of Sparta and the prog-indebted fantasias of The Mars Volta. ATDI have periodically reunited since, but have never managed to put individual tensions aside long enough to stick with a newer incarnation of the band. A simple enough story, well-worn territory in the world of underground DIY music. Meanwhile, ATDI’s third album and major label debut remains a masterpiece, an unimpeachable whirlwind of surrealistic, hallucinogenic lyrics and brutally-affecting music to match. It bears a weariness, a distilled anger and fear pressed deeply into its very grooves.
VIDEO: At The Drive-In “Invalid Litter Dept.”
In the video for Relationship’s centerpiece “Invalid Litter Dept.”, eerie black and white film footage of Juarez’s hellish sweatshops and machinery brush up against the arresting tableaux of crime scenes where the city’s women have been murdered and dumped. Occasional subtitles bring those north of the border up to speed on the crisis. ATDI doesn’t mime performance here, but occasionally shows up motionless and stoic with various Juarez locales as backdrop. It’s a fittingly harrowing visual for the band’s most accomplished song, a time-shifting dirge of arpeggiated guitar meltdowns and ghostly glimpses of piano continuously ebbing beneath frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s fractured poetry. In the amoral nightmare otherworld of Juarez, paramedics fall into wounds “like a rehired scab at a barehanded plant”, guillotines laugh and the hopelessly damned dance on the ashes of corpses. “The strut of vivisection” leads to an isolated greyscale existence, where shadowy entities will ensure that your obituary will show pictures of smokestacks. Scalpels carve maps. Penance is anesthetic. There’s no redemption and little salvation to be found on the Juarez side of the border, but ATDI implies that the same may go for “Hell Paso”, that everything is merely a matter of context once you square up to it.
At The Drive-In Live at the Electric Ballroom in London, England 12/7/2000
Listening to these songs, one is likely struck by a sense of duality, a dichotomy that articulates and evolves on many potential levels. Mexico vs. America. Juarez vs. El Paso. A band made up mostly of Chicanos, living in Texas but within sight of blighted Chihuahua. Yet what propels the best of ATDI’s heartbroken underclass anthems is the inherent tension between melody and brute force, melancholy shout-along refrains vs. roaring post-punk fervor. Though Bixler-Zavala has a reputation for the abstract and seemingly chaotic in his lyrics, there are a remarkable number of straightforward pleas to humanity here. In the soaring “Pattern Against User”, “Please take the weight out of this, it takes the weight out of living” rings true as desperate appeal for some small modicum of understanding and empathy. In the thorny thickets of what first appears to be a clever hipster word salad, one discerns an avalanche of pain, resolve and bitter reconciliation. Landfills are immortal, minutes get taken away. We remain “infants ripe for the training”. Yet we still circle heavenward on Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s sparkling chords and perfectly-arranged breakdowns, the music as hope’s impassioned rejoinder, insisting firmly on recompense. It’s contemplating Juarez from the El Paso side, but also the reverse.
VIDEO: At TheDrive-In “One Armed Scissor”
The album’s (and band’s) best-known single, “One-Armed Scissor”, works even better within the proper framing of Relationship Of Command, Bixler-Zavala’s teary-eyed warbles tumbling drunkenly into the bleachers of aggressive hardcore shouts and second-wave emo guitar runs. This song simply refuses to become a dusty relic with age. Elsewhere, lively workouts like “Enfilade” practically glisten with tasteful production choices and unusual field recordings (“Hello mother leopard, I have your cub…you must protect her, but that will be expensive…”). Even Iggy Pop shows up to lend some unhinged theatrics to the peppy, almost pop-punky sugar rush of “Rolodex Propaganda”; it’s a blessed moment of levity in this album’s singularly bleak post-colonial landscape, where people want to be good but seem profoundly unable to learn how. By the time we reach the spent hexes and drawn and quartered pets of elegiac closer “Non-Zero Possibility”, we’re utterly drained yet exhilarated. This is music as a moving, living being, both commenting on and refracting the many lights and darknesses that surround it on every side. Twenty years on, those same forces threaten us.
Perhaps Relationship’s most revealing lyrics arrive in a weirdly dub-inflected and swaying deep cut, “Quarantined”. The “autonomous machete for hands” and the binoculars that “watch cardboard towns” again imply the perspective of the perpetual outsider looking in, no matter which side you occupy. For every gaze leveled across topographies, another is returned. Such fragmented images call to mind those collapsing slums clinging to dusty Juarez hillsides, or brutal cartel murders where victims are sometimes found literally hacked to pieces, dehumanized and deleted from existence like so much runoff material. At The Drive-In hailed from El Paso but never could shake off Juarez’s looming specter.
On Relationship Of Command, they bravely embody the spirits of both cities, divided yet twinned, each mirroring the best and the worst in each other, every clear-cut difference and bone-deep similarity. Sometimes a band just needs to live close enough to a border to record their classic.